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Smaller Maritime Patrol Aircraft Built for Tight Budgets

Aug. 28, 2012 - 10:48AM   |  
By TOM KINGTON   |   Comments
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FARNBOROUGH, England — Spurred on by moves to replace the world’s aging fleet of P-3 Orions, shrinking budgets and a growing need to patrol coastal regions, defense companies are queuing up to offer smaller maritime patrol and top-end maritime surveillance aircraft, often based on commercial platforms.

The trend was evident at this year’s Farnborough International Airshow, where Boeing announced it was planning a maritime surveillance aircraft to satisfy customers looking for something smaller and cheaper than its P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, which is based on the 737. While it is still in talks with an unnamed platform provider, the specifications Boeing released for the new program match the Bombardier Challenger 600.

“Certain customers have said, ‘We love the P-8, but we are budget-challenged or don’t need anti-submarine warfare capability. What can you offer?’Ÿ” said Egan Greenstein, a business development director for Boeing’s surveillance and engagement division.

While maritime surveillance aircraft tend to offer radar and sensors, maritime patrol aircraft may also have anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities.

Lockheed Martin said at the show that it soon expected to sign more than one contract in North Africa for its recently announced SC-130J Sea Hercules, a maritime patrol version of the C-130J. Italy’s Finmeccanica and Russia’s Rosoboronexport announced they would convert Russian aircraft to the mission, starting with the Beriev Be-200 amphibious aircraft.

Sweden’s Saab, meanwhile, said it is planning a maritime surveillance demonstrator of the Saab 2000, while Italy’s Piaggio Aero said it would team with Saab to modify the Piaggio P-180 executive turboprop for the mission. Finmeccanica said it is promoting its ATR 72 maritime patrol aircraft in South Africa, India and Algeria.

“There is interest in these capabilities because of the new focus on the littoral environment, piracy and, in the Asia-Pacific region, increased submarine acquisitions,” said Douglas Barrie, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Manufacturers are looking to push smaller, commercial aircraft because budgets and the small number of aircraft don’t justify a new start program.”

“Countries that have had large maritime patrol aircraft in the past can now have smaller and cheaper but more capable solutions,” said Matthew Smith, business development director for surveillance solutions at Saab.

Companies were particularly keen to show off their wares at this year’s air show, given the U.K.’s likely requirement for a new maritime patrol capability in years to come thanks to its scrapping of the Nimrod MRA4 program. Axing the MRA4 on budget grounds left Britain, an island state, with little in the way of maritime surveillance and attack capability. Studies into a potential replacement of the capability have taken place at the Ministry of Defence, but the controversy sparked by the largely political decision to nix the MRA4 means a formal decision to move ahead with a new program is unlikely before the next national strategic defense and security review, expected in 2015. Work on that review is underway, and with a likely highly critical report soon to be published on the subject by the parliamentary defense committee, capability providers at the Farnborough show were looking to influence thinking on the subject.

“The obvious candidate for the U.K. would be the P-8 if it wants to recoup capabilities,” Barrie said.

The problem for the U.K., though, is it has little money to afford a P-8-type solution, which is why contenders like the C295 and Saab 2000 were being vigorously pushed, said executives here.

SC-130J also could be a contender as a permanent capability or gap filler for the U.K. In the meantime, the company is eyeing nations that are replacing their P-3s, hoping the SC-130J’s price tag of around $150 million will draw customer away from pricier P-8s.

New offerings are blurring the line between maritime surveillance and armed maritime patrol aircraft. Lockheed is planning three stages of development for the SC-130J: the first with radar and electro-optical sensors; the second with wing-mounted, anti-surface weapons; and the third with anti-submarine capabilities, including two added bays for six Harpoon missiles, sonobuoys, a magnetic anomaly detector boom and extra fuel pods.

Jim Grant, Lockheed’s vice president for new business, air mobility, special operations forces and maritime programs, said most of the SC-130J’s capabilities would be roll-on, roll-off, allowing customers to convert their own C-130Js, including the U.K.

“Single-mission aircraft days are over,” Grant said. “With a roll-on, roll-off aircraft, you can do ISR over land one day and look for submarines or fight fires the next day.”

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Andrew Chuter contributed to this article.

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